ABC News: 'Cheap' opinions masquerading as 'analysis'
In a December 2009 article at Quadrant I wrote:
With the introduction of The Drum the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has established a significant “new media” presence with an interactive site offering “analysis and views on the issues of the day”. The aim is to tap into the huge online audience looking for something more than straight, dry news reporting.
Like Huffington Post and Asian Correspondent (the obligatory plug for the site I write for), The Drum offers easy access to literally hundreds of articles written by a multitude of writers. All of these sites do provide news and “analysis” but much, perhaps most, of their content is actually opinion, many of the authors -- me included -- possessing no special knowledge of their subject matter.
The Drum evolved from and subsumed its predecessor Unleashed, which is now The Drum – Unleashed. Unleashed publishes contributions from a diverse range of writers, typing ability the site’s only apparent publication criterion. Thus Unleashed publishes numerous opinion pieces by non-authority writers, many of them Leftists. The perfect example is the 11 opinion article archive of Antony Loewenstein – an authority on nothing -– on topics ranging from Robert Mugabe to the likelihood of an attack on Iran to the Beijing Olympics.
My view was bolstered by former ABC journalist Chris Masters, who argued that ABC News was opting for opinion as a "cheap" replacement for high priced investigative journalism:
In the last decades within the news industry there has been a great deal of concern about the rise of commentary displacing conventional news reporting. Sometimes it is difficult to see a distinction in an article between commentary and reporting. And why has this happened? I don't see it as a result of public demand but more because it is cheap. It is easier to allow a shock jock to do your thinking for you. It is easier for a reporter to belt off 700 words without conducting a single interview. It is cheaper for a network to hire a bombastic commentator and give him a studio and call it current affairs. It is not brave opinion. It is cheap.
And we are cheating ourselves. The rise of commentary and surrender of values such as fairness, balance and objectivity is our own form of self-harm. Reporters have become fixated on what to think rather than how to think. They are discarding even basic tools for information discovery like the telephone while pretending to sharpen analytical powers over information generated by others.
Opinion without fact is next to useless. The problem is not opinion per se but an absence of research. I have a suggestion. For the sake of public health perhaps we should require columnists to identify their research. Just like the one, two or three star energy ratings you see on appliances there could be small telephone icons beside a column to identify how many calls were made.
The reality of this situation has finally dawned on Crikey publisher Eric Beecher:
Mr Beecher -- whose purchase of Crikey in 2005 turned the activist online publisher into a forum for more measured commentary in recent times -- criticised the ABC's opinion site The Drum as "seriously and dangerously" compromising the ABC's editorial integrity by running "wacky" personal opinions that were "mainly from the Left". The criticism was dismissed as "self-serving" and "inaccurate" by Bruce Belsham, editor of abc.net.au.
A classic example of ABC opinion masquerading as analysis is a The Drum article by far-Leftist Jeff Sparrow demanding that Australian forces be brought home from Afghanistan, now. A well researched Afghanistan piece by Masters back in August on the other hand argues that Australian soldiers are indeed making a difference, however:
In June when I revisited the transformed Tarin Kowt hospital Dr Noor told me twice as many people in Uruzgan now access healthcare. Nearby is the new boys school. The Dutch Provincial Reconstruction Team head Jennes de Mol told me 50,000 more students now receive education.
Outside Tarin Kowt there is also progress. Colonel Stuart Yeaman commanded Reconstruction Task Force 4, which deployed in the summer of 2008. By then the coalition was shifting to a "population centric" approach, which meant excluding the Taliban by protecting communities.
The soldiers had come to term previous raids on the Taliban as like "Jim's Mowing". You go out there, cut them down, return to your base and they grow again. The reconstruction teams, now with a better balance of force protection, stayed on location, drilling wells, building clinics, schools, bazaars, bridges and interacting with the community.
So when visiting The Drum beware the surfeit of cheap opinion masquerading as analysis: opinions are like assholes; everybody has one and they all stink.